What’s the drill for dealing with the changing of the guard?

What’s the drill for dealing with the changing of the guard?

It happens in every newsroom and in every PR office – the changing of the guard. 

Given the current operating environment, change is not only a constant, it’s the new norm.

Newsrooms downsize, shift focus, go digital, go big and go small. Communications departments and public relations agencies do much the same. Through it all there is constant turnover on beats, at the lower levels and in the senior ranks.

So, what’s the playbook for what to do when you have to deal with a changing of the guard? 

Regardless of whether you are a reporter, or on the other side as a PR person, here are some tips for how to deal when things change at an organization.

1. Do your homework

Once you hear of an imminent change or a recent change, do the necessary research to find out who the new personality is, where he or she came from, what they’ve done, but most importantly, what their operating philosophies may be. 

Thanks to LinkedIn and other social media, it shouldn’t be difficult to learn a good deal simply through secondary research, but that’s just a start.  Talk to people. Talk to those involved and anyone you may know who is already familiar with your new point of contact.

Consider this a good faith effort to understand the other person and bring value to the relationship.

2. Schedule a meeting

That research will be invaluable before you proceed to the next step, which is to schedule a meeting as quickly as possible with your new contact, whether it be a formal meeting in the office or just over coffee. The key is to have an open mind, seeking to learn as much as possible about the other person’s expectations and plans for the future.

In the meeting, hopefully you will identify areas of common understanding and value, and those are the seeds of a positive relationship. 

You may also identify some areas that could potentially lead to misunderstandings, or even conflicting expectations. It’s probably best not to try to address them, or at least the more complex issues, in that initial meeting, but rather save what you learn for any follow-up meetings or discussions. That way you can put more thought into the best course of action.

3. Set near-term and long-term goals 

Coming out of the initial meeting, you will have a better sense of what you can and cannot achieve in the near term. The reason to focus on the near-term is because it will set the tone for the entire working relationship going forward, whether that relationship lasts six months or ten years.

Actively try to find ways to get off on the right foot and help the other person do their job better. And while I don’t remember any courses on this when I went to journalism school, I have learned from experience that journalists can maintain proper professional distance and detachment without the need to make things unnecessarily difficult for valued public relations resources. Like many things that come to play in relationship-building, the Golden Rule for both parties helps. 

When you treat people with the same respect you demand that will help you in ways you may not expect going forward.

4. Open dialogue sets the tone

The communications process starts from the outset but it should never stop. 

If you are the public relations rep, don’t limit communications only to when you want to secure a media placement. If you are the journalist, don’t limit communications to only when you need a quote for a story. Maintain ongoing dialogue, particularly during down times when the pressures of deadlines don’t loom.

Giving each other a heads up on current events or new developments in the industry or on the beat are helpful. Checking in simply to see how things are going may uncover opportunities to work together in ways that may have been unanticipated.

5. Follow-up creates a working relationship

Once you’ve had an initial meeting, follow-up is critical. 

Small or large, follow-up is an actionable way to send a message to your new contact that you can be trusted, that you are reliable and persistent. This not only creates goodwill, but it is a reminder that when the time comes and you are working on a story together, you know what to expect from each other.  In essence, follow-up will likely come to define the health of your working relationship.

For the PR person, this may give you the confidence and assurance you need to push your organization to respond to that reporter’s request, or better anticipate the reporter’s needs.

For the journalist, it’s the understanding that you’ll know in advance how valuable and responsive your PR resource will be when it counts.

Ultimately, it’s all about getting on the same page and staying on the same page so that relationship issues do not become problems when external factors come to play, when you have important stories to tell, and when you have deadlines to meet.

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy.  He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.

Photo: Changing of the guard via Shutterstock

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